Historical Fiction

Pick Your Battles: 23 Must-Read Military Historical Fiction Novels

Liberty Hardy

Senior Contributing Editor

Liberty Hardy is an unrepentant velocireader, writer, bitey mad lady, and tattoo canvas. Turn-ons include books, books and books. Her favorite exclamation is “Holy cats!” Liberty reads more than should be legal, sleeps very little, frequently writes on her belly with Sharpie markers, and when she dies, she’s leaving her body to library science. Until then, she lives with her three cats, Millay, Farrokh, and Zevon, in Maine. She is also right behind you. Just kidding! She’s too busy reading. Twitter: @MissLiberty

Parallax Publishing

Mushroom Cloud, the first book in the First Strike series, traces the life of physicist Dr. Caleb Young, a fictional character who is a composite of the brilliant scientific community during the early years of the Cold War. In the 1960s, Caleb becomes the focus of an extensive investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. The book takes a deep dive into the numerous confrontations between the two great nuclear powers of the Cold War—the United States and the Soviet Union. And Caleb Young knows far more than he is willing to tell them.

For almost as long as humans have existed, they have been fighting, necessitating the need for protection and armed forces. And for almost as long as that, humans have felt the need to write accounts of fighting and wars, and read about them too. And because of the records kept, and more recently, documentation on film, we have been able to research and write accounts of military action. The result is that we have many great military historical novels to read. And you can check out 23 of them below!

For this post, I mostly chose novels that prominently mention conflicts, but there are a ton of wonderful military historical novels set during wars and fighting behind the scenes, or between wars, or about the aftermath of wars. Military historical fiction is also a largely white, male-authored genre, but there are more books about military action featuring, and written by, women and people of color being published all the time, and you can find more info online. For starters, you can read about the important Black heroes and brave women in U.S. military history, and the Library of Congress’s collection of Diverse Experiences in Service.

I also skipped a few of the classics, such as War and Peace, Catch-22, and The Red Badge of Courage, in favor of a few great lesser-known works. I also skipped Slaughterhouse-Five because of its time-traveling element, but if you like military fiction to be on the sci-fi side, be sure to check that one out, as well as our beginner’s guide to military science fiction. (I highly recommend starting with The Forever War.)

cover of Regeneration by Pat Barker; collage of B&W photos from WWI

Regeneration by Pat Barker

This is one of the best novels written about World War I. It’s an examination of the horrors of war, told through the eyes of a decorated British officer who is sent to a hospital after he refuses to continue serving in the war.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

And this is a masterful piece of work about two young Irish men who meet in the U.S. and fall in love. Barry follows their story as one of them fights in the Indian Wars and the U.S. Civil War, and they work to build a home for themselves away from judgment.

cover of Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem; illustration of a roman soldier in the snow

Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem

We’re going waaaaaaaay back, to the 5th century, with this novel about the fall of the Roman empire. The focus is on General Maximus and his lone Roman legion trying to fight off the invaders by the Reine.

Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas

Based on true events, this novel of the Spanish Civil War is considered a classic. Cercas investigates the story of Rafael Sánchez Mazas, who claims to have escaped a firing squad and was spared by the enemy when he was found hiding in the woods. But was that what really happened?

cover of Sharpe's Tiger by Bernard Cornwell; photo of rifles in front of an old fortress

Sharpe’s Tiger by Bernard Cornwell

And this is the beginning of the famous series about soldiers and military action. Richard Sharpe is a member of His Majesty’s Royal Army, the regiment of the 95th Rifles. Fighting is his whole life, and he does it well. This first of more than 20 books takes place during the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799.

At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop, Anna Moschovakis (translator)

Diop’s debut novel is about soldiers in the trenches in WWI. It received the International Booker Prize, the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, and many, many more accolades. It’s a gut-punch of a story about a Senegalese soldier in the French army who is slowly overcome with madness due to the horrors surrounding him.

cover of The March by E.L. Doctorow; photo close-up of one white star on the US flag

The March by E.L. Doctorow

This award-winning, best-selling novel follows General Sherman and his troops. Doctorow details their infamous march through the state of Georgia during the U.S. Civil War in 1864.

A Ballad of Love and Glory by Reyna Grande 

This fantastic historical novel flew under the radar when it was released. It’s about love in the time of war, specifically the love that grows between an Irish soldier and a Mexican army nurse during the Mexican-American War in 1846.

cover of War Trash by Ha Jin; photo of Chinese soldier in green tint with the title across their eyes in red font

War Trash by Ha Jin 

And this is another excellent story that examines a side of war, this time from the perspective of a Chinese soldier in an American P.O.W. camp. When a member of Mao’s army is captured during the Korean War, his knowledge of English makes him the go-between in the camp, a job that will expose him to the humanity and the horrors of the place.

Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon

Another aspect of military work is the dangerous job of being a spy. This is based on the true story of an Australian expat in France. Nancy Wake was a socialite when the Germans invaded Paris. She decided to join the resistance and became an intrepid spy and smuggler, who thwarted the Germans at every turn and became a hero.

cover of Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes; image of helicopters flying over cloudy mountains

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes 

Vietnam veteran Marlantes spent three decades working on this war epic, about the Bravo company. During the Vietnam War, these young men in the jungle have to fight the enemy, the horrible living conditions, and even each other, to survive.

I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe 

When Rosetta’s husband leaves to fight in the U.S. Civil War, she disguises herself as a man and enlists to fight beside him. This powerful novel was inspired by the true accounts of women fighting in the war.

cover of The First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough; painting of Roman soldiers

The First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough 

Colleen McCullough is probably best known for her massive hit The Thorn Birds. But she also penned this seven-book epic series about Rome, starting with this tale of legendary figures Marius and Sulla.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

And this remarkable novel is based on the little-known true story of the women in Ethiopia who took up arms and fought back against Mussolini’s 1935 invasion at the start of WWII.

cover of The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien; image of outline of soldiers moving through a jungle at night

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

This novel is often considered to be the greatest Vietnam War novel in existence. A Vietnam veteran himself, O’Brien’s account of the war and the effect it had on the people who fought is now widely taught in schools and colleges.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

And speaking of classics, this 1928 autobiographical novel about a German soldier on the front lines during World War I was an early example of what had yet to be labeled as ‘PTSD’. More recently, it was adapted for a second time into an award-winning film.

cover of The Hunters by James Salter; old photo of pilot sitting in aircraft cockpit

The Hunters by James Salter

Captain Cleve Connell is a pilot sent to fight in the Korean War. His goal is to shoot down the most enemy planes and be a big hero. But when he fails to accomplish bringing down even one, it strikes doubt and fear into his heart.

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is considered the greatest novel about the U.S. Civil War. Set over the three days of fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg, it is such an amazing, detailed work that it reads like nonfiction.

cover of The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli; photo of boats in a harbor in Vietnam

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

This much-lauded novel is about the Vietnam War, but told through the eyes of three photographers assigned there. Helen, Linh, and Sam are living and loving dangerously during the last days of the fall of Saigon.

Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone

Stone’s gritty classic novel of the Vietnam War describes a different side of battle: the opportunists and criminals who profited from the war, both in Vietnam and back home in the United States.

cover of The Secret of Raven Point by Jennifer Vanderbes; photo of young woman with brown hair reading a letter

The Secret of Raven Point by Jennifer Vanderbes

This absorbing novel about World War II is a moving story of love, family, and loss. When Juliet’s brother goes missing in action, she enlists as an army nurse to be sent overseas and makes it her mission to find out what happened to him.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Wein’s amazing novel about best friends and World War II is a new classic. It’s about two young women who become pilots and are later shot down in France by the Germans; and expands on their friendship and how they came to be in that situation.

cover of The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk; photo of naval shipman, one of higher rank standing with his back to the camera

The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

And last but not least, this Pulitzer Prize-winning classic tells the story of a navy warship sailing the Pacific during World War II, the mutiny of its crew, and the fallout.

For more great historical novels, here are 8 great books pertaining to the U.S. Civil War and 25 of the best historical novels of the last decade. And if you love to read nonfiction, here are 24 of the best history books of all time.